It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Omotai. A fixture in Houston’s heavy music scene for going on eight years now, it’s been more than three since the punishing group’s last release, Fresh Hell, and it feels like longer. A lot has happened in that time.
The Obama administration has already receded into a hazy, pre-Harvey realm, where the Astros are still bad and Oceans of Slumber is still fronted by a guy. Things are different now — weirder, in some cases. In fact, conditions are pretty much perfect for Omotai to release another brain-rattling slab of bayou sludge, and guitarist Sam Waters couldn’t agree more.
“I just wanted to have us all develop and produce something that we personally felt artistically fulfilled by, which I think we’ve done,” Waters says. “We were just kind of exploring a few different themes via a historical mystery that doesn’t necessarily have any answers. We started there and built on it over the course of a couple years. I think we really did a solid job just in terms of pushing our own boundaries.”
Funny thing about boundaries; they have a way of shifting around on you. Omotai has done some shifting to match. Jamie Ross added a second guitar to the band’s sound in late 2013. Following the departure of human jackhammer Anthony Vallejo, drummer Danny Mee took over on skins for Omotai the following year. Now a four-piece, the group did some touring and began creating the batch of songs that became their new disc, A Ruined Oak. A characteristically perplexing swirl of doom, hardcore, sludge, and post-rock, it’s a record that more varied than anything Omotai has done previously but heavy enough to feel of a piece with the old stuff.
Waters wrote most of the music. He says the disorienting blasts are inspired by the enduring mystery of the lost colony of Roanoke, a community of English settlers in present-day North Carolina that up and disappeared in 1590.
“I’ve always been interested in how people open themselves up to manipulation,” Waters says. “We were just kind of exploring a few different themes via a historical mystery that doesn’t necessarily have any answers. We started there and built on it over the course of a couple years.
“A big part of it, for me at least, was exploring the idea of letting go and not having to have hard answers for all the question in life, because I think that that is a big component in how people allow themselves to be manipulated — this inextinguishable desire to have hard answers in life,” he continues. “It’s just not always the case that you can get answers, and personally I think that people have to learn to be OK with that.”
Let there be no mystery about this: Omotai is still perhaps the loudest band in town. A buzzing swarm of guitar gives way to pounding drums and shouting on A Ruined Oak’s opening title track. The addition of Ross allows for some power-metal harmonizing, a welcome expansion of Omotai’s down-and-dirty crunch. Blast beats throttle the listener next on “Last of the Green Vial,” and throughout the music to come, the bandmates trade off on hollered vocals as odd time signatures abound on tracks like “Back to the Drifting Satelite.” It’s the kind of CD that tempts you into keeping a pair of earplugs in your car.
“I’ve been playing a full stack for as long as I can remember,” Waters says simply. “I just like playing loud, and I like being in a band that plays loud.”
Omotai celebrated this month’s release of A Ruined Oak with a tour to the West Coast. Getting out of town as soon as possible was kind of always the plan with the new
“When you’re faced with a situation where you’re going to have to drive 20 and 30 minutes through hair-tearing traffic to get anywhere, I think people tend to be cautious with their entertainment dollars,” the guitarist says. “So, they want party rock and $1 Lone Stars, which is totally fine. In terms of being an artist or musician, it’s actually almost encouraging, because you have the sense that you can do whatever it is you want to do and not have to worry about meeting a particular standard.
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“The flip side of that coin is, even though we’ve had some people who have been hugely supportive in Houston, as a fan, I don’t think that you’re going to find as much support as you might in another market,” he continues, speaking for plenty of touring bands in this town. “It’s just kind of the nature of how the city’s laid out. There’s also the factor that, nine months out of the year, it’s too hot to even go outside.”
Now that temperatures have cooled off, expect Omotai to blow the doors off your local venue before too long. The tunes should be plenty tight when they do.
“I want people to experience a very full-sounding band, and I want the songs to be challenging, but not wholly indigestible,” Waters says. “Something where people are maybe pleasantly surprised and didn’t know to expect, but come away happy.”
A Ruined Oak is available now on streaming services and at TofuCarnage.com.